Fare-Dodgers Beware There's No Such Thing as a Free Ride

Unlike the turnstile-guarded subway in New York, the locked-up tube in London and the sealed Paris metro, the public transportation in Berlin and most German cities is run on the honor system. No ticket? You can still ride, but don't think you'll get away with it.

No, the subway is not free in Germany. Maybe it’s because I’m naïve, maybe because I’m an American, but I tend to cling to the belief that there is still such a thing as a free lunch … or at least the occasional free ride. As an exchange student in Berlin, I was flabbergasted to learn that public transportation in Germany works on the honor system, meaning you can board a train, streetcar or bus without having to pass through a turnstile or swipe your ticket. It’s tempting to try and exploit that kind of trust, but allow me to impart a few words of warning to would-be fare-dodgers: you will be caught. Schwarzfahren -- which literally means riding black -- carries stiff penalties (€40) and an even heavier social stigma in such an order-obsessed country.

For those willing to abuse Teutonic trust, you will one day be greeted by unassuming, normally dressed men and women. After boarding your train, they’ll probably chat casually until the doors slam shut and then one will bellow: “Good day, ladies and gentlemen! Your tickets, please!” At that point you'll realize that not only are you trapped, but also that absolutely everyone else -- including the anarchist-looking kid who’s steadily been putting back tallboy cans of beer since he got on at Zoo Station -- has a ticket. And not just any ticket, mind you, the correct ticket.

If you were trying to ride for free, or even if you just forgot to validate your day pass or bought the wrong ticket, playing the ignorant tourist with a rapid-fire apologizing, eye-blinking technique won't necessarily endear you to the transport employees. To put it mildly, Germany is not a country that specializes in excuses, or in loopholes. And like any law-abiding Teuton, you should have figured out the rules before boarding, right?

Contributed by Hannah Tucker in New York.

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